Walter Lippmann and the American Century
During the twentieth century, American journalism has come into its own. Its hallmarks are terseness, clarity, and economy of phrase, and its greatest practitioners have been called artists in their own right. The magnitude of the talent of journalists such as Walter Winchell and Stewart Alsop makes them far more than mere reporters of the world’s important events: they are artists in their own right, interpreting the news of the day, and finding in it the seeds of future events. As true artists, they, like the best novelists, not only have the power to sway emotions and make readers dream dreams of a better world, but they also have, the great journalists, the power actually to effect the outcome of world events because their readers include the mighty few who wield real power. Ronald Steel, professor and an author of several books about politics and foreign affairs, has written what may be the definitive study of the finest of all American journalists: Walter Lippmann, the trusted confidant of many of the twentieth century’s movers and shakers.
As with almost any life that has transcended the ordinary, Lippmann’s is a study in agony and ecstasy, the agony often coming from his having been at loggerheads with presidents with whom he would rather be friends, or his having been betrayed by those whom he trusted. What inspired him most, on the other hand, was the acquiring of influence over the powerful leaders of the most powerful nations on either side of the “Iron Curtain.” “Influence,” as Steel says, “was Lippmann’s stock in trade; was what made him a ... public figure.”
Influence came slowly but steadily as Lippmann gained readers and stature; and, since there were few writers who could coherently discuss complicated foreign and domestic affairs day after day, he could not help but be noticed. The influence he acquired gave him substantial leverage with decisionmakers which, in turn, allowed him to help make decisions affecting millions. As Steel points out, however, it is impossible to ascertain exactly how many decisions were made because of what Lippmann wrote, for he possessed the intangible power of the pen rather than more discernible powers. What is known is that Lippmann was widely quoted—perhaps more so than any other journalist—in high circles and that presidents, prime ministers, and princes vied for his attention. Such people came to him because, Steel speculates, “they literally did not know what they ought to think about the issues of the day.”
Lippmann was a Jew in a Gentile world, but he never seemed to feel out of place. In fact, it is pointed out, he adopted the viewpoints, habits, and speech patterns of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and spurned anything that would mark him as Jewish. Lippmann was surprizingly uninterested in the idea of a Jewish homeland, even after hearing about the deathcamps of Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
As a young man, Lippmann started his career in those relatively halcyon days prior to the bloodbath of World War I. That he began writing before the war explains his confidence in man’s betterment and belief in progress, views that those who grew up with the Great War and its aftermath found impossible to hold. Throughout his career, he would be ever the optimist, believing that somehow right would triumph over might and good win over evil.
After the War ended in 1919, the Western world was completely changed. The complacent world view held by leaders of the nineteenth century was smashed on the battlefields of Ypres and the Somme. New ideologies came to the fore and people needed to know all about them. Bolshevism, socialism, and other “isms” demanded explanation. People wanted to know where events were leading, what would come next, and who would be doing the governing. Since man had revealed himself to be an unimaginably base and bloody minded creature in the Great War, all things were in doubt. Gone forever was the notion that mankind was perfectible. Now...
(The entire section is 1,525 words.)